This one is going to be a novella…
Got the beginning and the end, now working on that swampy middle…
Comments and recommendations appreciated as always!
Danny woke as the sun rose, walked into the trees, and relieved himself. I could really use some coffee, but that don’t work in a cold camp. He crouched and rubbed his leg, then stood and managed not to groan. Dammit. I really want my leg to stop hurtin’. He walked around for a few minutes and finally felt like he could function normally. He quickly saddled Blue, making sure the blanket was smooth under the saddle before he cinched the girth down. Once that was done, he dug through his saddlebag and found a piece of pemmican, and gnawed on that as he led Blue over to where the lieutenant was standing.
Donovan looked around, saw that everyone was there, and said, “Mount up. Boyle and Ramirez are scouts.” He followed up with the rest of the squad assignments and swung up on his horse. “Lead out, Boyle.”
Danny nodded and eased out of the clearing and back toward the trail. It seemed like only a minute later, and they were at the Brazos crossing. Quickly looking both north and south, he crossed the river, pulled off the trail, and looked for tracks as he slid his rifle out of the sheath. Donovan nodded when he crossed as he saw the rifle. “Smart thinking. We want to swing northwest from here. The trail branches in a half mile or so. Take the right fork.”
“Yes, sir.” Danny and Ramirez led out again, and he took the right fork, glancing at the sun to make sure he was going the right direction. The only thing he smelled were a few pines off to the west, and his own stale sweat and Blue. Same damn winds down here. Either out of the northwest, or out of the southwest. He felt the wind in his face as he cleared the cottonwoods. Long as I keep into the wind, I’m goin’ the right way. A mile or so up the trail, he pulled Blue up suddenly. What the…tracks. Unshod horses. “Ramirez! Over here!”
Ramirez reined up and came back to where Danny was dismounting. “What?”
Danny pointed to the tracks. “Unshod horses joined the trail right here. Go let the lieutenant know.” Ramirez turned without a word and trotted back toward the rest of the squad as Danny walked around, looking at the tracks.
By the time the lieutenant came riding up, Danny had remounted. “What have you got, Boyle?”
“I think five unshod horses came out of the brush here and turned northwest on the trail.”
“Any idea how old?”
Danny shrugged. “In the last day or so. It rained, what, two days ago? These tracks have been made since then.”
Donovan scratched his chin. “Well, maybe we can catch up to them. But I want y’all closer than a hundred yards. Don’t get further than maybe fifty yards in front of us, unless I say different. And ride with your rifles out.”
A couple of hours later, they came to the Clear Fork crossing and Danny pulled up. When Ramirez joined him, he said, “Looks like the tracks go straight into the water and come out the other side. I’m going to cross and see if all five of them came out. Can you wait for the lieutenant and tell him?”
Ramirez nodded. “I will.” He looked around carefully. “I think they are gone on up the trail.”
Danny grinned. “I think so, too, and they’ve been moving at a trot most of the day, so they are staying about the same distance in front of us.” Danny gigged Blue and rode him across the ford at Clear Fork, then scrambled up the other bank. He rode another hundred or so yards, until he was clear of the patch of cottonwoods that lined the creek, dismounted, and tied Blue to a convenient bush.
He found all the same tracks, and a fairly fresh set of droppings, just as the rest of the squad rode up. Donovan asked, “Still the same five?”
“As far as I can tell, sir.” He pointed to the droppings. “Those are fairly fresh, I think, probably today.”
“Alright. We’ll take a short break here.” He turned and said loudly, “Everybody water the horses, get something to eat, and refill your canteens if you need to.”
Four hours later, Danny topped out on a small rise and pulled up suddenly. Off in the distance, he could see a spark of a fire in the gathering dusk, and the faint smell of wood smoke. He quickly backed down off the rise and rode back to the lieutenant. “Somebody may be camping for the night. Got a fire up ahead of us.”
Donovan replied, “Show me.”
They rode up until just their heads cleared the small rise, and Donovan shook his head. “No, I think we’re too late. I think they’re already gone. Smell that smell? That’s burnt meat. They probably killed something, ate their fill, and threw the remnants in the fire. You and Ramirez stay here. I’ll get the others arranged the way I want them, then we’ll push toward the campfire.”
He turned and rode back down the rise as Ramirez came riding up. “Lieutenant wants us to stay here. Any idea what he’s planning?”
Ramirez had his riata out, flipping it back and forth nervously. “If he does it like before, he wants a half circle.”
With a snort, Ramirez said, “So nobody shoots anybody else by accident.”
A few minutes later, Donovan rode back up to them. “Start down the trail at a walk. Once we get down on the flat, we will fan out and walk toward the fire. Don’t shoot unless you see an Indian, or they shoot at you.”
Danny gripped his rifle tighter and said softly, “Let’s go, Blue.” The horse shook his head and started forward, walking daintily in the deepening twilight. It seemed like it took forever to get down off the rise, but he watched as the others spread out on either side of he and Ramirez. Where is the lieutenant? Danny looked around quickly, finally spotting him out on the end of the line off to his left, as they continued forward at a walk. He could make out coals, with the occasional flare and pop from a piece of wood as he got within yards of the fire. Just as he started to relax, a rifle fired off to his right, and they heard a high-pitched squeal.
Waller yelled, “Got ‘im!”
Danny blew out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding as he came up to the fire, or what they left of it. There was no sign of any Indians, and he rode around the fire, back to the trail. He could barely see, but the tracks continued to the northeast. He turned back as he heard the lieutenant and Waller yelling at each other. Ramirez and Allen were sitting at the fire, laughing softly as the others came in. “What’s so funny? Danny asked.
Allen said, “Looks like the Injun Waller got had four legs and weighs about sixty pounds.”
Danny cocked his head. “What?”
Buck McKinnon rode up. He said disgustedly, “Damn idiot killed a shoat. It run across in front of me, but I let it go. That…idiot…got skeered and shot it.”
The rest of the squad rode in, with Donovan leading Waller, who was carrying the shoat across his saddle and quietly cursing. “Drop it by the fire.” Waller threw the shoat off his saddle as Donovan added, “Now go clean up.” He glanced around. “Ramirez, you know how to cook a pig?”
“Si, I can cook it. We will need…firewood.”
“Boyle, Allen, go get firewood. We’ll camp here tonight, since I’m pretty sure the Indians we were chasing are long gone by now.”
Danny got up and headed toward the creek, looking for fallen limbs and mesquite that would burn. He came back with an armload to find that Allen had beaten him back and was already building up the fire as Ramirez finished cleaning the shoat. Donovan sent the big German, Gottfried, and McKinnon out as guards. He looked around and said, “Boyle, Allen, you relieve them at midnight.”
Jeb asked, “Who’s gonna cook?”
Donovan chuckled. “Ramirez. He’ll make sure you have some supper left for you.”
Danny came awake to a light tapping on his boot. “Danny, ist your vatch.”
“I’m awake, Viktor. Gimme a minute to take a piss, and I’ll take the watch.”
“Danke. There is food for you at the fire.”
A few minutes later, he sat at the fire, munching a rib off the shoat as Allen came into the light, carrying the coffeepot, and picked up the other plate sitting there. “What’s going to happen tomorrow, Jeb?”
“Prolly head back to camp. The Injuns are long gone if they heard that gunshot. I got a feelin’ Waller’s done for, too. Lieutenant ain’t happy with him, between goin’ through your bags, shootin’ that pig, and the other problems he’s had with the Rangers, I think they’ll let him go.”
“Well, that wouldn’t bother me. Something isn’t right with him.”
Allen chuckled. “He’s always got away with stuff because he’s a big ‘un. Oh, by the time you make another round, the coffee I just put on the coals should be done.”
“Thanks, Jeb! Guess we better get to it, fore the lieutenant gets mad at us.” Allen laughed again and walked into the darkness as Danny headed for the picket line to check the horses. He checked Blue, talking softly to him as he pulled his coffee cup out of the saddlebags, stuffing it in his vest. He figured it took about twenty minutes to walk the perimeter of the camp, and he stopped every three rounds, poured himself a cup of coffee and sipped it as he walked slowly, stopping to listen on a regular basis.
By what he guessed was four in the morning, he was starting to get jumpy, needed to piss, and was pretty sure the last cup of coffee was half grounds and half water. He hit the picket line, rinsed his cup with the water in his canteen, and took a piss. I hope there is something to eat before we ride out. I know better than to drink that much coffee…didn’t the lieutenant say we’d be out seven to ten days? We’ve only been out…what…a little over two days? We keep going north, we might get to Henrietta. I might be able to check on the place.
Six more rounds of the perimeter brought sunrise, and the camp came to life. Ramirez cooked some kind of porridge with the left over shoat in it, and Danny wolfed it down along with another cup of coffee. Donovan came up as he was finished eating. “You think you can stay awake enough to scout this morning?”
Danny nodded and drank the last of the cup of coffee. “I…I’m awake now. I’m probably good for a couple of hours.”
“Finish your breakfast, then mount up. You and Ramirez will scout until noon.”
They crossed the Brazos again, but never caught up to the Indians. When the trail turned northeast, Donovan called a halt. “Those Indians know we’re following them. They’re headed for the Territory. Ain’t no point of following them any further. We’ll turn back and camp just east of the ford, since that is the last good water between here and the camp.”
Danny and Ramirez led the squad back toward the ford, with Ramirez playing with his riata again. A mile or so later, he suddenly whipped out a loop and yelled, “Danny, help me. I got a doe.”
Danny turned back and rode to where Ramirez was trying to get the doe close enough to his horse to jump on it, and laughed. “I’ll get the doe. Ain’t like roping a cow.” He jumped down, pulled his Bowie off his belt, and followed the riata down to the doe. Dodging the hooves, he quickly sliced her neck. He let her bleed out as the rest of the squad caught up with them.
Donovan rode up last, chuckled, and said, “Well, we’ll eat good again tonight. Boyle, you know how to skin one out?”
“Yes, sir. Skinned more than one. Can I keep the hide?”
Cocking his head, Donovan finally nodded. “As long as you clean it, and it doesn’t stink up the camp.”
Slinging the doe over Blue’s back, they continued down to the ford and crossed over before setting camp. Danny quickly caped the doe out, cleaned her, and handed the quarters and backstrap to Ramirez as he worked on the ribs.
Two hours later, he sat on a stump well away from camp, scraping the hide as McKinnon walked up. “How’d you get the doe without shooting it?” He asked.
Wiping his face with his sleeve, Danny replied, “Ramirez got a loop on it. I just fullered…followed it down to the doe and cut her throat. Less noise.
“Huh. Never woulda thought of that.”
Shrugging, Danny said, “Used to do that on the trail. A shot could spook the herd. John would have fired anybody that did that, but venison was a nice change from beef.”
Late the next afternoon they rode back into camp and Lieutenant Donovan released them to their area, saying, “Don’t go far. I’ll check in and we’ll see if they need anybody for the night watch.” That elicited a groan from everyone, and Waller mumbled something under his breath as he glared at the lieutenant.
Danny, Ramirez, and McKinnon went back to the little hollow in the trees where they’d slept before, unsaddled the horses, rubbed them down, and put them on the picket line before they spread out their blankets. They had no sooner sat down than they heard Donovan calling everyone in. A rugged looking older man stood by him, with Sergeant Logan standing on his other side. The older man said, “Waller has been released. He is no longer a ranger, and I would caution you not to have anything to do with him.” He said something to Donovan, who pointed at Danny. “Mr. Boyle, please come with me.”
Taken aback, Danny could only stutter, “Uh, yes, sir.” When the others turned, he followed them to the big tent and stopped outside.
Logan said, “Come on in, Danny. The captain doesn’t bite.”
He heard a chuckle as he stepped through the tent flap. “Have a seat. I’m Elmer Carlton. For my sins, I’m in charge of this goat rope.” He picked up what Danny suspected was his letter. “You come highly recommended, and seeing as how Sergeant Logan has already signed you up and you impress Lieutenant Donovan, I guess we have to keep you.” He smiled and stuck out his hand. “Welcome to the rangers, Danny. Logan said he’s already explained the pay scale and other things. Sergeant Lewin has you on the roll, and Donovan likes your scouting ability. I understand you’re a bit of a hunter also?”
Danny wrinkled his lips. “Not gonna say I’m good, sir. But I can usually hit what I aim at. I do know how to skin game, and I can feed myself.”
“Any experience with Indians?”
“Yes, sir. A couple a runnin’ battles with them on the trail with the herds. They…attacked our place up west of Henrietta, burnt us out, and kilt…killed my ma and pa. I got a couple, and they got me in the leg.”
“I don’t want you going off half-cocked and shooting any Indian you see. We need intelligence about who they are, what band, where they are going, and if they attack any ranches, we’re definitely going to pursue them. Any questions?”
“All right, go on back to your area. Y’all will be in camp for a week or so as the reaction force while another squad makes a patrol.”
Six months passed in a blur, patrol after patrol, as the weather got colder and colder. They finally got tents toward the middle of October, just as the rain started. Danny finally had a chance to take on some Indians in late October. They’d gone northeast and came across a fresh set of tracks of at least eight ponies being ridden, and seven or eight horses being driven. All of those horses had shoes. Logan was leading the patrol and immediately broke off their planned patrol and went after them. “Danny, you’re scouting. Ramirez, you’re point a hundred yards behind him. The rest of us will be a hundred or so yards behind you. Don’t start anything unless you have to. Try to get close and see what the situation is.”
Danny looked around at the mostly flat terrain in the gloom of the early afternoon and laughed. “Hell, Sergeant, they’re gonna see me coming a mile away.”
“Maybe, maybe not. They aren’t leadin’ those horses, they’re drivin’ ‘em. That’s what they’re gonna be payin’ attention to.”
Danny had tracked them easily as the gloom deepened and a drizzling rain started. He started seeing scattered trees, and thought to himself, Getting close to a major water source. I wonder if this is the Red. If it is, and the river’s up, they’ve got no place to run. But I don’t know that I want to fight them in these woods either…
He waited until Ramirez came up to him and said, “Ram, I’m gonna swing off east here. I think this is the Red up ahead. I don’t want to run slap into them in the woods. I wanta see if I can sneak around and find where they’re gonna camp and see how much water there is.”
“Si.” Ramirez glanced at the sky. “Not long until dark. I wait here.”
Danny nodded, reached in his slicker, and took the thong off his pistol. Swinging Blue to the east, he trotted a couple of hundred yards, then swung back northeast until he penetrated the trees. Damn, it’s dark in here already. I better be careful!
He got through the band of trees and saw a stretch of fast-moving water about fifty yards wide. Yep, found the Red, now…where are the Indians? Danny moved back just to the tree line and walked Blue to the northwest, following the curve of the river. He’d gone maybe a hundred yards when he heard a horse neigh. Reaching down, he grabbed Blue’s nose, almost falling off as he kept him from answering. Tying Blue to a tree, he took his Henry out of the scabbard and eased forward. Fifty yards later, he saw shadowed movement, then the driven horses come out of the wood line, followed by the Indians. He was too far away to hear what was being said, but he could sense the disgust at the width of the river in their gestures. They’re stuck. I bet they are going to make camp. I gotta get back and get the squad up here before they get sentries out.
He made his way back to Blue as fast as he could, then mounted and rode him a hundred yards further away before turning through the trees. The ground was soft enough that his hoofbeats were muffled, and he rode hard to Ramirez. “They’re right at the bend in the river. It’s too wide. I think they’re going to camp. If we get there quick, I think we can get them! Follow me back and I’ll lead you through the trees.”
“Sí. Ride slow.” Ramirez trotted back to the rest of the squad as Danny walked his horse back toward the tree line, away from the Indians.
The rest of the squad caught up with him at the trees and Logan rode up, asking softly, “What have you got, Danny?”
“Indians about a hundred fifty yards west of here. There is a clear area on the other side of this tree line. They’re…they were right at the bend in the river. It’s too wide, I don’t think they are gonna chance crossing. If’n we hurry, I think we can catch them before they set up camp. I followed the tree line, and they never saw me.”
Logan nodded and made a circling motion. The rest of the squad gathered round. “We’re gonna foller Danny. He knows where the injuns are. Ride with your rifles out as soon as we clear the tree line.” Everyone nodded and Logan said, “Lead on, Danny.”
Danny turned and led them quickly through the trees, then turned parallel to the tree line, walking Blue slowly forward as he took out his Henry rifle. Damn, it’s getting dark. I hope I can see them before we stumble over them.
An Indian reared up and grabbed at Blue’s bridle, bringing him in line with Danny’s rifle and he just pulled the trigger without thought. The Indian fell away as Blue sidestepped, and a tree limb brushed Danny out of the saddle. Danny hit the ground and bounded up, rifle in hand and cussing. “Dammit, Blue!” He heard a grunt behind him and swung around, bringing the Henry up.
He deflected a tomahawk and butt stroked the Indian in the face, but felt his forearm burn as the Indian dropped to the ground. Danny fumbled the Henry around and shot into him as he started to rise, then sagged back against the tree, suddenly dizzy.
People were yelling back and forth, and he heard both Allen and Ramirez. Then Logan appeared at his side. “What happened, Danny?”
“Got…knocked off my horse by a tree branch.”
He held up his left arm. “I…think so. It’s burning.” Logan struck a lucifer, and he and Danny saw the blood covering his arm. “Well, guess I got cut.”
Logan cussed, then added, “Think you can ride? We need to get out of these damn trees. I want to get far enough back from the river in case it keeps rising, but we need to…Ramirez! You got anything we can use for bandages?”
“No, Señor, but I think McKinnon does.”
Danny swung up on Blue, a little dizzy as he slid the Henry back in the scabbard. Logan said, “Find him and send him to me.” He yelled, “Pulling back. Get out of the trees, we’ll worry about the horses later! Danny, get us out of here.”
Danny led off, picked his way back through the tree line, and pulled up. “Where do you want to camp, Sergeant?”
“That little rise, right there.” He turned in his saddle. “McKinnon with me. Everybody else, get firewood. We need to get Boyle patched up.”
Two hours later, Danny sagged back against his saddle, nursing his left arm. Logan had sewn the gash closed, dumped some whisky on it, and given Danny a drink before he wrapped it in the bandages McKinnon had carried. Some time later, he dropped into a restless sleep.
(C) JL Curtis 2021 All Rights Reserved